Since the end of college I have only read books I instantly enjoy. I found Jeannette Walls’ memoir, The Glass Castle, on one of my bowing white bookcases recently, tucked between the fibrous texts I absorbed in school. For the next three days, Vogue’s endorsement for the book came true in my little bedroom: “The Glass Castle is the kind of story that keeps you awake long after the rest of the house has fallen asleep.”
I defy anyone who claims they can pick up The Glass Castle and read only one sentence. It is impossible. I tried.
Walls opens her book with a dynamite sentence that promises many others:
“I was sitting in a taxi, wondering if I had overdressed for the evening, when I looked out the window and saw Mom rooting through a Dumpster.”
The tale of Jeannette and her erratic but loveable family takes off from there, diving back into her childhood years and never pausing for breath. Jeannette’s mother, a frenetic but life-loving artist, doesn’t want the responsibility of children. Her father, a talented but shiftless man who becomes an alcoholic, moves the family recklessly around the country at a moment’s notice, always running from yesterday’s mistakes and looking for the next big thing. As the family falls apart, every episode in the book seems more impossible than the last. After years of poverty, various forms of neglect, and sexual abuse from neighbors and extended family, the Walls children grow up and flee to New York City, where they make respectable lives for themselves. Their parents follow them, and live on the streets.
Walls tells a truly good story. She shows family life for the mixed bag that it is in every case, somehow refusing to vilify the people involved. She allows us to see through her child’s eyes and believe in the misguided but beautiful dreams of the parents who could not, or would not, protect her. She conveys the irrefutable conviction that whatever they put you through, your family is still your family.
But after I closed the book, what stuck hardest to me was one of Walls’ lines of acknowledgment in the front: “I can never adequately thank my husband, John Taylor, who persuaded me it was time to tell my story and then pulled it out of me.”
Proverbs describes us as people of depth: “The purpose in a man’s heart is like deep water, but a man of understanding will draw it out.” Walls’ brief acknowledgment revealed her husband, at least to me, as a well of wisdom. For there is real wisdom in people who are not just storytellers, but story-drawers.
I don’t know what the story-pulling process looked like in the Taylors’ lives. But I know what it has looked like in mine, and I believe it is one of the world’s most nourishing gifts. When I think of a story-drawer, I think about Grace.
Grace was my roommate my sophomore year of college, and my first ever African-American friend. She was beautiful, hip, tasteful, and her parents had given her the right name. Grace brought the riches and soul of her own culture to me in her hands. I loved living with her. She slept in the adjacent top bunk, where she would lie awake, looking at the ceiling, and listen. She always suspended judgment. She always encouraged me to tell my stories, even when I thought I didn’t have any.
In college we learned as much about life in those late nights of talking as we did during our daytime reading and lectures. It was especially true for Grace and me, because we were two of only three girls in our building who had gone to public school. We had plenty to discuss. We unfolded our stories to each other, surprised at the treasure we found in our own hearts.
We talked about our bad spots, about our stiff middle-school years when we didn’t feel beautiful and we didn’t understand yet how free we could become. We talked about sitting stiff in our chairs, squirming in our sneakers, wearing hoodies every day, being afraid of things.
It made for real friendship. In the introduction to The Glass Castle, Walls writes, “Everyone who is interesting has a past.” It is always hard to believe about yourself. But she was right.